From Amethi: Narendra Modi Brings Battle to Gandhi Doorstep

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Narendra Modi in Amethi on Monday

Amethi:  In Amethi, the Gandhis are omnipresent. From computer centres to public hospitals, their brand is built-in to the landscape with resolute references to Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and even Sanjay Gandhi, whose wife and son are with the opposition BJP.  (Watch)

For decades, the Congress has banked on the belief that history offers protection against the assault of the future's changing winds, especially in Amethi, a seat the party has lost just twice.

But in the home constituency of pilot-turned-politician Rajiv Gandhi, his son, Rahul, won't get a soft landing warned Narendra Modi, the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate, as his chopper entered the heart of the Gandhi stronghold on Monday afternoon.

Rahul, 43 is asking for a third term as Amethi's MP. His mother, Sonia, represents next-door Raebareli. Priyanka, 42, is managing their campaigns. (Also read: Rahul Gandhi, flanked by entire family, files nomination)

They are clocking their last few hours in running the country, Mr Modi declared. In a lengthy hard-hitting speech packed with take-downs of the Gandhis, Mr Modi accused them of failing Amethi, for ignoring its development, for taking its people for granted. "I want India to change," he said, "and I want that change to start with Amethi." (Opinion: Narendra Modi's Ebullient Speech in Amethi)

For the first time, Priyanka, who has displaced other Congress leaders and most notably her brother as the party's top headline-stirrer in the last fortnight, was not exempt. Mr Modi didn't name her, but in his most scathing and direct comments on her yet, accused her of unbridled arrogance, which, he said, had been laid bare when she responded with a dismissive "Who?" to questions about his party's candidate, Smriti Irani. He also taunted the media for the vast television and print space Priyanka has occupied in the past fortnight. (Highlights of Narendra Modi's speech at Amethi rally)

"There is a person here who is trailed by cameras all the time. But the cameras can't hide the truth of Amethi. One Congress leader here asked, 'Who is Smriti?' This is the level of her arrogance. I'll tell you who Smriti is. She is my younger sister." Mr Modi also said that Priyanka's father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, had publicly insulted Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister T Anjaiah in the early 1980s - Mr Modi appeared to be suggesting that the Gandhis have a tradition of arrogance and anger-driven politics. (In Amethi, Modi Takes on Priyanka, Slams her "Arrogance")

Priyanka's comeback was swift and equally sharp. In a statement to the media, she said, "They have insulted my martyred father. The people of Amethi will never forgive them for their low-level politics. Every worker at every booth will give them a resounding reply." ('Amethi will never forgive him for insulting my father', says Priyanka)

Mr Modi's decision to take his battle straight to the Gandhi's doorstep could be part of psychological warfare, an expression of political confidence, or simply a statement of political gumption. Either way, his Amethi speech was clearly aimed at a national audience.

As Mr Modi flew out, one supporter who had heard his speech said, "He has a star quality, he looks like a PM should." Others said that while Mr Modi had piqued their curiosity more than their allegiance. "We are all curious. We all want to see him, but our vote is our own choice," said a young wood trader, Majid.

All day long at tea stalls, paan shops, and in the interior villages of Amethi, there was just one topic of debate - whether Modi's pit stop would move the needle enough to deliver a surprise result. In 2009, Rahul Gandhi won by over 3 lakh 70,000 votes, getting over 70 percent of the vote against the BJP's 6 percent. That number would have to go up to 16 percent for the BJP's Smriti Irani to not lose her deposit.

The poor roads, the erratic electricity and Rahul Gandhi's emaciated record in Parliament, where the BJP said he has ignored the cause of Amethi, have turned into the spine of the opposition's attack on him.

Before Mr Modi arrived on the young Congress vice-president's turf, the BJP unleashed a salvo of statistics, daring the Congress to explain why Amethi's per capital income is Rs 10,000 lower than that of the average for Uttar Pradesh, and Rs 40,000 lower than the national average.

Mr Gandhi's pet project, the 100-days employment guarantee, has a delivery rate of only 3.2 percent in Amethi, the BJP alleged. They also questioned Mr Gandhi's poor attendance in Parliament pointing out that it was 43 percent compared with an average MP's attendance which is well over 70 percent.

But as the day ended, it was not Mr Gandhi, but his sister who was again the story of the day for her unflinching face-off with Mr Modi.

"Every vein of Amethi is flowing with Gandhi blood. Modi has come and insulted the Gandhi family. We will teach him a lesson," said a Congress supporter, echoing what Priyanka had promised. "That's rubbish. What have the Gandhis done here for all these years?" asked a BJP supporter.

Amethi votes tomorrow. Up against Smriti Irani and Mr Gandhi is Kumar Vishwas of the Aam Aadmi Party.

Whether or not Amethi opts for the hyper-change that Mr Modi is urging, what is clear is that this time and for the first time, the fight is not just ferocious, but real.


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